The Sad Four Year Old and How I Overcame a Common Problem

As I write this today, I’m sitting at home on the couch beside my four year old daughter. We’re wrapping up a pretty fun day for her, and it all started this morning at preschool. But just as we were leaving school, she almost had a little meltdown. Thankfully I saw it coming and managed to avert it. I’d like to share the story with you to help in any way I can.

Today was my daughter’s “Special Day” at school. They try to do these as close to the child’s birthday as possible, but obviously some kids have birthdays during the summer months, so the school holds a “special day” for each child instead of a birthday celebration. Same thing – and just as cute.

As part of the special day a parent can attend the last hour of class. I got to be that parent so I spent an hour with my daughter’s class. We played games and I read them a book about a Princess (yeah, my daughter planned this in advance and brought the book from home!)

It was a total blast and my daughter had been looking forward to this event for several weeks. Her teachers told me that she reminded them I was coming almost every day for the last two weeks.

When I showed up her face just beamed with excitement and pride. So did mine, to be honest. I mean – how can you not reciprocate that kind of excitement on your child’s face?

When the hour was over, we both put on our coats and started walking out the door. I was holding my daughter’s hand. Just as I went to take my first step down towards ground level, my daughter hesitated. She pulled back on my hand, not wanting to leave.

I looked down at her and noticed the beginnings of a few tears. So I sat down on the stairs to be at her eye level. It wasn’t long before I realized exactly why she was holding back. She just didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want her special day to be over. She had been looking forward to it for so long and it seemed to end too quickly for her liking. That’s why when we headed to the stairs she suddenly had this flood of emotions.

In this scenario a lot of parents would try to use logic with their child. Parents will often say something like, “Well, Lizzie – you had a very fun day at school and now it’s time to come home”. This rarely works because logic and emotion are like oil and water. They just don’t mix.

Instead you need to remember to deal with the emotional state directly. My daughter was suddenly sad that her special day seemed like it was over. My solution to the problem was to reframe it altogether. I’ve written about reframing before, but let me remind you what it is again.

One potential definition of “reframing” is to help someone see a problem in a different light such that it is no longer perceived as problem. Once you reframe the “problem”, the negative emotional charge dissipates instantly.

All I did was to say to my daughter, “Liz – your school day is over but your special day is not. We get to take your special day home with us and we can read more books and play more games together at home”.

I kid you not – this completely changed her state of mind. You see, school days end 5 times per week. She’s totally used to that. So I used that knowledge to my (and her) advantage. In saying what I said to her, I removed the conceptual link between her special day and the physical location of her preschool. I turned the special day into some sort of “thing” that we get to take home with us.

We walked home together, hand in hand, laughing and talking about the fun time we had and looking forward to the rest of the day. When we got home, Liz was super excited to tell her mommy about her day.

I hope this little story demonstrates to you how easy it can be to change the emotional state of a child through words. And if you’re interested in learning more about this I encourage you to check out my “Talking to Toddlers” audio course.

SEE ALSO: This audio lesson will forever change the way you interact with your kids

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10 Responses to The Sad Four Year Old and How I Overcame a Common Problem

  1. billi-jo April 16, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    this is good info i will use it with my 41/2yr old son. i am trying really hard to use all your info when i do it works instantly. thanks so much

  2. Abir Taha April 16, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Hi Chris ,
    Thanks a lot it sound to me a very useful way to use with my daughter who will turn 4 in June and i will do the same way with her when she is in an emotional state like this

  3. Loh April 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi chris,
    Thx a lot, it does give some idea for my daycare kids.I like it very much.

  4. April 16, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    I love your advice and your ideas have consistently worked in my home with my two 3.5 year olds. Had I never read your articles I wouldn’t have thought about 2 important things: 1: Enter their world and 2: Empathy works wonders with kids and helps you become closer OH and let me add a 3rd: Attacking an emotional situation with logic almost NEVER works! Thanks for your great articles!

  5. Hoda April 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Very thoughtful solution. Reframing is one of the most important tools to change negative emotional states, yet it is not always easy to come up with convincing ideas to a child. I have baught your audio course and trying my best to practice and implement.

  6. renu April 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    dear chris,
    i really appreciate your understanding of kids behaviour. you are such a great help to moms like me. i really hope to put these skills to use at the appropriate time. thanks so much.

  7. Reu April 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    Thanks Chris,
    My son is 4 yrs and daughter is 7yrsold. This solution is really good from school to home or friends house and back home. However, my kids have a problem everyday returning from the park or closing the day and getting to bed. Story time is just not enough or play time s just not enough and this seems like never ending to empathize or reframe. The whole day cannot be just play or what they want like video time, etc.
    Please advise.

  8. Madie Werner April 18, 2011 at 8:00 am #

    Dear Chris,

    I had a similar problem this morning, but slightly different… My daughter is in Grade 2 and this morning she just didn’t want to stay at school. She cried and said she doesn’t know why she is sad, and just wanted Mommy. I sat with her until her teacher and the other kids were all in class, then she kissed me goodbye very sadly. She wasn’t even like that when she started school! It happened one day last week as well, after the school holidays. My first thought was that there is something wrong at school, but she says nothing is wrong. How should I handle this when it happens again?

  9. Lavon Korswing April 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Brilliant! Thanks for sharing. Keep those useful ideas coming.

  10. Sonia April 18, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    Hi Chris, I totally understand your story, I can relate to it aswell. And I like hearing more of your ideas. But I also believe this senario goes without saying. From the day my 3.5 was born, I always found give my son something to look forward in a day that will make him feel special or make the day exciting for him.

    We don’t do anything exciting in a day, but for example, if I need to do grocey shopping, I build it up in his mind to suit him. I will say, something like, “I will buy you a cheesybite sandwich, while u sit in the trolley mum does the shopping, u can eat ur sandwich, and if you been a good boy after that I will buy u a juice..”

    Another example, my grandfather (my son’s great grandfather) is in a hursing home, he’s not excited about that because doesn’t do or say alot, but when we go visit him, ’cause my son loves animals and music and they have a number of pets and a guy playing the guitar in the home, he looks forward to that, and that make him want to go.

    In your case, chris, If he was having a special day @ kinder for his birthday, I will read him a story and play more games when we get home, but also, I would also tell him that we’re also going to have family and friends on his special at home too.

    I always try and turn a negative situation into a positive when it come to my son. (sometimes it is hard. The only thing its not working with is Number 2 in the toilet…

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